This Saturday piece comes out of an interview I recently conducted with Mark Millar, if you can bear with me for a moment while I explain where the title and the article below comes from. I had asked Millar why so many of his comics are used as the basis for movies, not just Millarworld creator-owned books like Kick-Ass and Kingsman, but also comics work like Marvel’s Civil War, The Ultimates and Old Man Logan.
Here’s his response, somewhat edited down…
“I think it’s because of the straight-forward ideas. A lot of comic books, especially comic books of the last forty years or so, have been very continuity-driven. They tend to be stories that you have had to read a comic to understand, so I think they get tangled up in their own continuity, and they tend to be leading people to events. Even in comic books, it can be very hard to get into. When Marvel asked me to do something with the Avengers characters, I did a complete reboot of them with The Ultimates. Anybody who has never read a comic before could pick it up and understand it, so that made it very simple to translate that into the Avengers movie. I think that kind of thing works really well cinematically, because the majority of people haven’t read those old comics, so I take the characters and put them into other situation and then that makes it easy for other people. I think it’s really as simple as that.”
So there you have it. Mark Millar might not have discovered the secret of life, but he certainly has figured why some franchise tentpole films work well and are successful and others suffer the daggers of internet criticism and are deemed to be dogs that don’t deserve to be fed your movie dollars.
Now let’s take those words of wisdom and apply them to a few movies, to see if Millar’s “secret to success” can be applied to every single tentpole and blockbuster released.
Let’s start with two of this year’s biggest movies, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman. Granted, I haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I do think that director Bill Condon and Disney tried to create a movie that didn’t require anyone to have seen any previous incarnation of the fairy tale, including the popular Disney animated film or the Broadway musical based on it.
The same can be said for Wonder Woman, because you literally didn’t have to know anything about Wonder Woman or her long history in comics to enjoy the movie and totally get who she was, where she came from and why she does what she does so well. When casual moviegoers who don’t read comics can go see a superhero movie and enjoy it as it’s own stand-alone thing, it’s a huge bonus because it allows the movie to appeal to more then just fan boys and girls.
If you compare Wonder Woman to something like last year’s superhero movies, Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War and even Suicide Squad, you can see how the simplicity of the storytelling in Wonder Woman helped it connect more immediately than those other films. Batman V Superman already expected you to have seen Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel and there were so many nods to the battle in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and other comics, that it was really hard to just watch the movie as its own thing.
As we get to next month’s Justice League (new trailer tomorrow!), there’s a chance of even more confusion as that follows up three previous movies, introduces new characters and then tries to bolster DC Entertainment’s shared universe… or maybe it doesn’t. DC Entertainment’s decisions, announcements and general rumors about what they’re doing are so convoluted and confusing themselves, it’s amazing they’re able to do anything simply and concisely as they did with Wonder Woman.
Marvel Studios / Disney
Even Captain America: Civil War expected you to have seen some of the other movies about the individual characters or at least know who they are because otherwise, you probably wouldn’t understand why things like Ant-Man growing into a giant — something he didn’t even do in his own solo movie — was something that audiences applauded. When Spider-Man shows up in the big battle in that movie, you at least have to know who Spider-Man is to understand the impact of that reveal. Sure, most people do know Spider-Man, but I wonder how many “normals” out there are aware that Spider-Man’s movie rights were bought by Sony and his appearance in Civil War was setting up a crossover between the companies with this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
This thought can even be applied to this this week’s Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to a 35-year old movie that pays such an homage to the earlier film, that it’s expected that anyone who wants to enjoy the new movie has to at least have seen the original movie. When you’re talking about getting moviegoers under 30 to watch an old movie, that’s a difficult prospect, and we’ll have to see if the movie does better overseas than it’s doing in the U.S. where it’s likely to tap out at $100 mill.
On the far end of this scale is Paramount’s Transformers movies that are expecting that everyone watching the movie knows something about the Hasbro toyline and the comics and cartoons they inspired if they want to get anything out of the muddled mess of storytelling that the movies have become under Michael Bay’s guidance. Paramount might try to turn next year’s Bumblebee prequel/spin-off into the type of done-in-one movie that doesn’t expect the viewer to know anything about the character beforehand, but I’m dubious that will be the case.
Another great example of applying “Millar’s Theory” to filmmaking is Fox’s successful relaunch of the Planet of the Apes franchise with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. You have to remember that 10 years earlier they tried a similar feat with no less than Tim Burton, but with Rise they started from scratch, went back to a time when earth was just the earth we know now and then started instituting sci-fi elements in Caesar, the super-smart ape, and how his bad treatment turned him against the humans despite having a loving master in James Franco. This was a movie that literally started you on the ground floor and didn’t expect you to know anything about the earlier movies. The sequels built off that, but once you get into making a sequel, you’re already going to lose part of the appeal of the movies predecessors. At least the next two movies under the guiding hand of Matt Reeves helped create a strong trilogy of films.
20th Century Fox
With that in mind, it’s curious that movies like X-Men: First Class (by Millar’s friend and collaborator Matthew Vaughn) and The Wolverine didn’t fare better since they were essentially doing what Millar suggests, rebooting the characters, ignoring what came before and not expecting moviegoers to know a lot when coming into the theater. Both did well enough for Fox to do more with those characters but you have to think that after Days of Future Past, moviegoers were so confused that they weren’t up for X-Men: Apocalypse, which REALLY wanted you to have seen every other X-Men movie and read some comics as well. Fox are moving forward with X-Men: Dark Phoenix, which might have similar problems but they have other ways to explore “Millar’s Theory” with The New Mutants, which should be a movie that can interest new moviegoers. (The movie opens in April so we should probably see the first trailer in the next couple months.)
Speaking of Fox, they did very well with Tim Miller’s Deadpool starring Ryan Reynolds, which threw so many references and nods to other movies (including Green Lantern) that it’s surprising the movie succeeded as well as it did. That was just such a funny and entertaining movie that even those going in to see it without knowing the Deadpool character in advance were able to get something out of it.
It does seem like movies likw Deadpool and Wonder Woman work because they are essentially origin stories, and that can be applied to other successes like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man etc. Warners’ Suicide Squad was probably meant as an origin story but it was so convoluted with other stuff (like the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn) that it ultimately suffered. Spider-Man: Homecoming didn’t require you to know anything about Spider-Man, but they daringly didn’t create a third origin story because they knew that everyone knows Spider-Man’s origin, and they could create a simpler story involving Iron Man and the Vulture.
All I have to say about the next example of a confusing and convoluted movie is two words, the movie’s title: The Mummy.
Sure, you can say that movie did start off from scratch without needing to know previous material, but it tried to do so much and introduce so many ideas, there’s no way any of it, let alone all of it, could register with movie viewers. Again, overly complicated, tangled and confusing continuity, all in the name of trying to set up a franchise.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has proven its popularity with the success it’s brought to everyone involved, but each of the movies gets more convoluted and expects more from the viewer, which may be why the recent installments haven’t been as successful as the initial trilogy. Disney is still moving forward with another sequel, but this is definitely a franchise that needs to be rebooted from scratch if they want to keep making money with the property. (Find a young actor that can play a younger Captain Jack Sparrow, and that should be an easy prospect. In fact, it’s something they’re going to try out with the upcoming Die Hard prequel.)
Another outlier for this theory, sort of, are the recent Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Both movies are so heavily entrenched in the continuity from earlier Star Wars films, it’s amazing that moviegoers will go see those movies without having seen or knowing anything even about the original 1977 movie Star Wars. I can’t even imagine what that experience is like, but for whatever reason, Lucasfilm has made the movies work, and we’ll see if that continues into Star Wars: The Last Jedi and next summer’s Han Solo movie. (The latter already sounds like it might be a mess, so we’ll see if Ron Howard can pull things together.)
I don’t have the ego to believe that anyone working on an upcoming tentpoles might be reading this, but I truly believe that we can learn well from history and what did and didn’t work in the past. If you happen to be writing a potential franchise movie, then don’t worry about throwing all your ideas into that first movie. Save some of those ideas for a potential sequel because the more convoluted and tangled you make that first movie, the less likely there will ever be a second, let alone third or fourth movie.
Edward Douglas / East Coast Editor